Do you recall, a while back, the Navy’s video of the “highly successful” laser anti-small craft demonstration? You know, the one where a laser was focused on a boat’s outboard engine and eventually melted the engine cover? The video didn’t say, but the impression was that the process took somewhere between several minutes and many minutes.
Have you ever seen a small boat approach at high speed? Can you see the engine? No, all you can see is the shiny, reflective bow bouncing up and down. Depending on the sea state, the boat may actually vanish from sight, momentarily, as it plunges up and down.
Let’s briefly review what a laser is. In incredibly simplified terms, a laser is a narrow, focused beam of light unlike a flashlight where the light spreads out from the source. The focus allows the beam to transmit high levels of energy to a pinpoint spot thereby causing damage. The amount of damage is a function of the intensity of the beam and the duration of contact between the beam and the target. The laser, being light, travels at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, and, for all practical purposes, is an instantaneous event. Like all light, a laser can be reflected by mirrors or shiny surfaces or attenuated (diminished) by dust and water in the atmosphere.
The Navy’s goal is to create a laser weapon. We’ve all watched Star Wars and have a mental image of what a laser will do: an instantaneous vaporizing beam of destruction. I don’t know what the Navy’s ultimate goal is but presumably it’s along those lines. Specifically, I suspect the Navy is interested in lasers as an anti-missile defense, in particular as an anti-ballistic missile defense. Of course, in the shorter term, they may have a lesser goal such as blinding a person in a small boat or some such.
Despite the Navy’s PR claims of wild success with the laser demo film clip, it’s obvious that we’re many years, probably decades, away from anything approaching a Star Wars type laser weapon. OK, that just means it will take a while longer, yet, right?
Here, though, is the problem: I think the potential for effective countermeasures far exceeds the potential for the laser as a weapon. For example, something as simple as making the attacking missile shiny and reflective would negate the laser’s effect. I could imagine other, equally simple countermeasures. For instance, attaching a spinning cap over the missile’s nose would prevent the laser from focusing long enough in one spot to have an effect. And so on …
That’s the technical problem and here is the consequence: the cost of developing an effective laser weapon is going to be grossly, insanely greater than the cost of developing countermeasures. With any foreseeable future laser technology, laser development is headed down a rabbit hole of runaway costs. Consider that the Air Force recently terminated their airborne laser test bed after decades of work dating back to the 1970’s, as I recall. I wonder what the cumulative cost of that effort was? I remember reading Aviation Weekly articles about the Air Force’s laser and the prediction that a practical laser weapon was just a relatively few years away. Now, several decades later, the Navy is suggesting that we’re just a relative few years away from an effective laser weapon. Nothing’s changed despite decades of work. This is just one of those technologies that isn’t going to come quickly to fruition.
Now I’m absolutely not suggesting that we halt laser research; quite the opposite. It’s well worth pursuing but it should be as a pure research effort and only at a low level of funding. Every dollar spent by the Navy on lasers is a dollar not spent on a practical, near-term weapon. Building future laser (and rail gun) support capability into the ships we’re building today is pointless. Lasers won’t be an effective weapon during the lifetime of the ship’s we’re building now. On a related note, the Ford clearly incorporates laser or rail gun sponsons.
So, let’s enjoy our scifi movies and let’s fantasize about Star Wars lasers but let’s keep a realistic view of the state of the technology. Building ships based on non-existent technology is what got us the LCS. Let’s not repeat the mistake with lasers.